Gurdeep Kaur Chawla
Gurdeep Kaur Chawla at the interpretation booth during an assignment. Image Credit: Supplied

When she took the test for a diplomatic interpreter with the United States State Department, several years ago, she didn’t know that in the years ahead she would have the rare opportunity to meet heads of states from around the world – without actually being part of any diplomatic corps. But Indian origin woman Gurdeep Kaur Chawla, now based in California and director at Indian Language Services LLC, had this firm conviction that with all those hours, days, months and years spent at minutely listening to archived speeches from India’s parliament sessions, with the headphone firmly in place over her ears, she had enough wherewithal to ace her role as an interpreter at some point in her career.

At a time and age when most young men and women, who are fresh out of college, aim at conventional career options, Gurdeep chose to hone her skills in something off the beaten track: Translation.

Today, Gurdeep -- the president of the California State Chapter and director, executive board and chair, for the Education and Government Relations Committee at Indian American International Chamber of Commerce (IAICC) – is an accomplished name in diplomatic circles in the US, India and several other countries for her role as an interpreter and she has been roped in by the United Nations time and again for her services. When former US president Donald Trump visited India last year, Gurdeep was part of the White House entourage. Gulf News caught up with her for a tete-a-tete during one of her visits to New Delhi.

GULF NEWS: What is the Indian Language Services all about?

GURDEEP KAUR CHAWLA: I live in California and I have my own company there called Indian Language Services. So I cannot move in to Washington DC with a full-time job. The US State Department asks for my services from time to time, but they are not my employer because I have my own business. My company provides interpretation and translation services in India and abroad. We hire experts as and when the assignment demands and we have specialists to assist us in 22 Indian languages. Apart from that, we also have experts helping us in several European languages, Arabic and Chinese as well. We hire people with 10-15 years of experience in interpretation and translation.

How did you get to work with the UN?

I started my career with the parliament of India and after about six years I moved to the US. I was primarily working for the White House when Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to New York on a private visit for the first time after he became prime minister, in 2014. Prior to that, I had worked with former US president Barack Obama and was part of his entourage that visited India in 2010 and 2015. So the US State Department already knew about me and my services. So, when Mr Modi came to New York in 2014, the organisers of the event, who were primarily people from the Indian diaspora based in the US, approached me and I agreed, so long as the organisers provided me with a two-and-fro ticket from California.

However, interestingly, I got my first opportunity to work with Mr Modi even before the Madison Square Garden event happened. Just two days before Mr Modi’s New York appearance, I got a call from the Indian Embassy in New York. The Indian prime minister was due to address the United Nations General Assembly in New York just a day before the Madison Square Garden event. So, the Indian Embassy wanted me to cover Mr Modi’s General Assembly speech as well, since I would be preset in New York around that time for the Madison Square Garden event. For the first time in the history of the UN, an Indian prime minister was due to deliver his speech in Hindi. Usually, it is citizens of the country concerned who are given preference for such interpretation and translation services and I was not an Indian citizen. I was a US citizen. In spite of that, when the call came from the embassy, seeking my services, it was indeed a matter of honour and I said ‘yes’ to it.

Did the call from UN take you by surprise?

It was a rare opportunity and I grabbed it with both hands. The UN has its own set of interpreters in eight languages and Hindi isn’t one of those. When the Indian Embassy called from New York, it was around 4 in the evening in California and there was only one flight, it was a red-eye flight. I knew it had to be that one, or else I wouldn’t make it to New York in time for Mr Modi’s UN address. I just had to drop everything and run. I had to pluck my son out of his class and take him straight to the airport and got a ticket for him to travel with me because my husband was in New York and there was just no place where I could have kept my son. So it was one mad scramble, but in the end, I did make it to the UN on time.

I reached New York at 2 in the morning and I was told to report to the UN headquarters at 6am to get my credentials. I slept for barely two hours that night, but in the end, it was an extremely satisfying experience. I didn’t even have a copy of Mr Modi’s speech because according to protocol, a copy of the PM’s speech can only be given out in advance to an Indian citizen. Since I was not an Indian citizen, I couldn’t be given one. So I had absolutely no clue about the theme or the content of Mr Modi’s speech. There was no way I could have prepared anything in advance. So whatever interpretation I did was entirely on-the-spot and in real time.

What was the most challenging bit about this assignment?

The biggest challenge of an assignment like this is that it’s not just the delegates who are present at the venue and listening to you, but it’s the whole world that has its ears perked up – an Indian prime minister had just won a thumping majority in the world’s largest democracy. So people the world over were quite inquisitive to know about this new Indian prime minister’s vision. There was a lot of interest focused on what Mr Modi would say in his maiden address to the UN. After I did the interpretation for Mr Modi at UN, there were a lot of calls that I received from the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand and several other places. Many of my acquaintances in this field, who had heard me interpret Mr Modi’s UN speech, were pleasantly surprised to hear my voice and wanted to know how did I make it to the UN?

You spoke about other countries also asking for your services as an interpreter. Can you elaborate on some of those stints?

Soon after this, in October 2014, I got a call from the Canadian authorities. The then Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper was scheduled to travel to Brisbane for the G-20 summit in November. Harper was scheduled to hold bilateral talks with Indian PM Modi on the sidelines of the Brisbane summit and the Canadian government wanted me to interpret for their prime minister wherein Mr Modi would be in the audience. And there’s an interesting anecdote here that I’d like to share. I was waiting, along with Mr Harper, for Mr Modi to come into the room. As Mr Modi walked into the room, he saw me and soon after exchanging pleasantries, looked at me and said: “Aap wahan bhi, aap yahan bhi (You were there, you are here, too)!

Then in April 2015, Mr Modi was scheduled to travel to Canada on a state visit. So the Canadian government once again called me and sought my services for Mr Modi’s visit to Toronto, Ottawa and Vancouver. Later that very day, I got a call from the Indian authorities, asking me to interpret for the same visit, but for their side! So I had to excuse myself, saying that I won’t be able to do it since I had already signed a contract with the Canadian side. During Mr Modi’s 2015 visit to Canada, Mr Modi and Mr Harper even flew on the same plane during their inter-city travels. They were seated next to each other and I was interpreting for the Canadian side right through.

Gurdeep Kaur Chawla says that as an interpreter, one has to be in synch with all the background information, as well as understand the mindset of the speaker. Image Credit: Supplied

What really prompted you to take up this profession?

It was my father who encouraged me to take up this position of a translator in the Indian parliament because he suggested that I do it for some years, get a senior rank and then move on. Being a senior government officer himself, he knew how it worked. So I just listened to his advise and followed suit. But once I started working as a translator in the parliament, I started taking a keen interest in it.

Then one day it so happened that I saw someone at work with a headphone on and I wanted to know what was it all about. This colleague then told me that he was interpreting a speech. And I was quite fascinated by the idea – that how can someone interpret something while he or she is still listening to what is being said! Because conventional knowledge says that you can either speak or listen at any given point of time. You can’t possibly be doing the two things simultaneously. But then I was told, “that’s the trick”. Also, the job of an interpreter pays you that much more than that of a translator’s. So there I was, staring at a career option that was at once challenging and financially rewarding, too. Then one fine day, I stepped into the Lok Sabha (Lower House of Indian parliament) galleries and put on the headphones and I told myself: “Wow! This works like magic.”

How did you take to this switch in role – from translator to interpreter?

I was allowed to participate in a practise session. So I put the headphone on and I was given a speech from Rajya Sabha (Upper House of Indian parliament). I kept listening to it and kept interpreting. After about five minutes I stopped, took the headphone out and looked around. By that time, my seniors had started clapping and one of them said: “Your coverage was about 95 per cent, which is very good for a beginner.” That was it. After that, I prepared rigorously for more than six months and never looked back.

How did you go about picking up the nuances, the finer points of this job?

It’s been a fascinating journey, you see. This is not just translating words. Interpretation involves so much more. Politicians and parliamentarians use so many figures of speech, they use background information, facts, figures to back up their logic … there are times when so much of sarcasm is at play. For instance, when I did my job as an interpreter during the Paris Climate talks, I had to find out a lot about the background. Climate politics itself is such a vast area. As an interpreter, one has to be in synch with all the background information, as well as understand the mindset of the speaker and what he or she is driving at, in order to be able to do a good job of it. You ought to think ahead of the speaker. You ought to be very careful also because one misinterpreted word can start the Third World War! And of course experience counts. For instance, now that I have interpreted for Mr Modi on so many occasions, I can understand what kind of idioms he prefers using in his speeches. I know what his favourite words are. I can anticipate certain things in advance … it may not be 100 per cent, but I can get as close as possible. This is what we call ‘going under the skin of the speaker’. All that counts because it is not just interpretation of words, but thought as well.